Panem et circenses et infantes

Making a company more family-friendly doesn’t happen by telling your employees that having children is less of a priority.


A friend showed me this article today: Apple and Facebook are covering up to $20k for “fertility and surrogacy” costs, including egg-freezing procedures.

Apple and Facebook are adding this perk to their arsenal in an escalating battle to recruit and retain technical talent, especially female workers. […] While still uncommon, egg-freezing allows women to remove and store eggs when they are in their prime fertility window, which often overlaps with prime career-advancement years. The quality of a woman’s eggs declines as she gets older, putting many women in a bind about whether to have children in their 20s and 30s. Egg freezing allows women to stockpile healthy eggs while advancing their careers or waiting to meet a partner with whom they’d like to start a family.

One one hand, it’s nice that these are covered in employee perks now, I guess? I see company help with fertility and surrogacy as being particularly beneficial to same-sex or infertile couples who want to have children. Really, any help with fertility-related costs is always welcome: these procedures are not cheap. Who knows, I might have to use them one day.

On the other hand, that this is being presented as some sort of feminist move by some quarters (not least the companies themselves) leaves a bad taste in my mouth. A large company isn’t thinking about feminism. It’s thinking about talent retention and pleasing the board and making money, and anyone who believes otherwise is even more idealistic than I am (which is really saying something). Apple says, “we want to empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families.” I’m sorry, did you mean, “we want to empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they delay starting families, because now they have no reason not to?”

I’m all for expanding people’s access to the option of having children later. But this move is obviously going to create the expectation that they should have children later. Telling employees “hey, egg-freezing is now on the company dime” also inadvertently (?) sends the message that “now you really have no excuse to be taking maternity leave before your forties” – by which point you’ve probably dropped out of the tech industry for other reasons. If, as a young parent, you come back to workplace problems, hey, it’s your fault for stubbornly running off to pop a baby out when we offered you the chance to do it later.

I’m honestly a little astounded that this passive-aggressive move is actually a solution two of our tech giants have come up with to alleviate the maternity-dropout problem. Apple’s statement is telling: the focus is on getting women to “do the best work of their lives” instead of, I don’t know, being good parents, and it reinforces the unhealthy tech-industry obsession with a warped definition of “passion”*. Instead of making difficult institutional changes that support effectively starting a family and having a stellar career at the same time, let’s delay the childbearing window of our employees instead so that they can work harder for us before they burn out or leave to have their (delayed) kids at last.

Of course, it’s a hard problem to face. Important employees making significant lifestyle changes is tough for any business; in the ultra-competitive, sped-up, hyper-capitalist environment of high technology, it can be crippling. It’s far easier to distract from the root problem with false feminism.

But here’s the real problem. Why are those of us with wombs even “in a bind about whether to have children in their 20s and 30s”? Because they’re afraid of what might happen after that decision. Because “successful early career” and “children” are still widely incompatible, for some reason. Look on parenting forums and see the collective hand-wringing of ten thousand expectant parents. Ask your mothers, sisters, aunts, nieces. This isn’t something you need polls and statisticians to understand. (Numbers, anyway: 43% of UK mums on maternity leave will re-enter the workforce earlier than they would like; 47% of them cite job security as a reason.)

The tech industry is snapping up the best and brightest of our generation, right? They do it so that they can solve hard problems. How to support gazillions of complex queries for over a billion people with subsecond speed is a hard problem. So is this. Tech is one of the best ways of enacting positive social change today, but helping employees freeze their eggs isn’t the way to do it. Sponsoring egg-freezing is part of a family-friendly solution, and helping people have more options with regards to their personal fertility is always good. But fixing gender inequality in the workplace due to parental needs doesn’t start from giving ambitious employees the ability to start a family later** instead of never. Making a company more family-friendly doesn’t happen by telling your employees that having children is less of a priority.


* I’ve been doing some research lately, and startlingly few companies talk about their employees like they’re people, not factories.

** As if children were expensive toys, to be postponed indefinitely and acquired at a later date, once enough money had been saved. That’s a huge factor that goes into family planning, obviously, but it’s really not that simple.

Noticing when the glasses fall off

User-centred design is a lens through which we can see the world, but it can sometimes feel like a new pair of glasses that you carry around and sometimes forget to wear.

Although I am now a user experience designer with the Yale Student Developers, and have always seen myself as a very user-centred person – whether I’m programming or drawing a magazine cover – I haven’t been doing this quite long enough that this way of thinking is completely internalized. If you’ll forgive the somewhat contrived analogy, user-centred design is a lens through which we can see the world, but to me it still feels like a new pair of glasses that I carry around but sometimes forget to wear.

Today I had to borrow a laptop from a friend to record a short video for German class. (I actually had to try three friends and three laptops, and none of them worked properly, so I’m going to give the speech in person after class tomorrow. Yay, “technology-enabled learning” done wrong!) While trying to get to the webpage that would let me submit my homework, I couldn’t help noticing that this friend’s laptop was horribly slow. Tabs in Chrome were all unresponsive. It took me 20 seconds just to application-switch.

Curious, I looked at what was running in the background and the first signs of the problem became evident: he somehow had four antivirus suites (two expired, one semi-functional, one apparently working) and five file-syncing/cloud backup services all running at the same time. Despite the presence of the file-syncing clients, he also wasn’t keeping backups of any of his data. The applications running might not have been the source of the slowness, but that the machine (and his data) was in this state gave a good hint as to what the problem might be.

When I returned his laptop to him I asked if he was aware of this situation. “Uh, yeah,” he told me, sounding unsure. “I think I installed all those programs by accident? I can’t find the uninstallers. And I don’t back up my data, yeah, I know I should, but…”

This is a facepalm moment, isn’t it? This is the kind of story that you tell back at the tech support office, to collective head-shakes and horrified looks. “Oh my god,” we go. “Why are users so inept?” And then we exchange smug looks. Users, man.

This is the moment you have to catch yourself. Is it really the user who is at fault? Or is it because the uninstallation process** isn’t intuitive? Why isn’t he backing up his data despite having multiple user-friendly cloud backup services at his disposal? Does he think it’s too difficult? Does he not realize that these programs offer him a way to back up his data? Could it be that these aren’t as easy-to-understand as we think they are? (You’d be surprised at how hard it is to explain the concept of file syncing to people, even college undergraduates who have spent at least half their lives online.)

I certainly didn’t realize what I was doing at first – after all, poking fun at the less tech-savvy is a comfortable and familiar hobby for most of us. I was telling a programmer friend about what had happened, and we were expressing amazement at how widespread bad computing habits were when he remarked, “people need to take better care of their computers” – and I suddenly became very aware of how we were pinning all the blame on this guy who had lent me his laptop so I could do my homework.***

As UX and product management people in the tech world, it’s only natural that the user-centric glasses we try our best to wear still fall off our nosebridges sometimes. After all, we’re mostly in this industry because we care about the people using our products, yes, but also because we love technology. We think the stuff engineers can come up with is awesome, and we want to make it even better. We’re all geeks. (Some more than others.) There will always be times when we forget that not everyone is the same way, when we’re baffled by another person’s unfamiliarity with something we work with every day, when we’re tempted to roll our eyes and declare the the problem exists between the chair and the keyboard.

What’s important is realizing when that happens, taking stock of the situation, putting the glasses back on, and looking again.

* I considered adding the sentence “my goal is to have the mental equivalent of laser surgery”, but after thinking about it for a little while, I decided that this isn’t really something I want. Although great in theory, I suspect that would tip me too far into the other direction, and cause me to lose touch with engineers instead. I need to be able to see how others see – not fully become others and lose the ability to view things from multiple perspectives.

** Mobile is one place that really gets this right. Uninstalling apps on smartphones is almost universally painless – perform the action that brings up a context menu, then select “remove” or tap a cross or drag it to a trash bin. Macs come a close second, except that the drag-to-Trash gesture doesn’t work for every type of application. The desktop environment is so wide open and subject to developer whims that the same kind of standardization is hard to achieve.

*** The way we instinctively shift responsibility off our products onto users reminds me a little of the language used in contemporary misogyny, actually: “women need to be less aggressive”, “women need to wear less revealing clothes”, “women need to sacrifice their careers to focus on their families”. If we can put so many resources into hiring UX people and good PMs to change the dialogue surrounding our products from “users need to X if they don’t want broken computers” to “computers should make it easy or needless for users to X”, we can definitely put the same amount of effort into changing the power dynamics and dialogue surrounding non-males in the tech